How Can Coaching Produce Sustainable Behavior Change? (Part 2 of 3) By Dr. Sunny Stout Rostron

Clients often ask their coaches, what happens when the coaching contract ends and you disappear? How will they sustain their own internal process and continue to create visible behavior change impacting positively on performance? Below I consider four ways that client behavioral change can be sustained as a result of your business coaching interventions: building the relationship, learning from experience, understanding the role of others and developing emotional competence (EQ).

1. Building the Relationship

Most research into the "encounter" between client and practitioner has been in the field of psychotherapy, yet it is in the early stages of research in the field of coaching.1 A relationship develops as a result of the "coaching conversation," with client issues skillfully teased out by the coach's interventions. These interventions should be part of a structure such as a coaching model, with the coach operating flexibly to cater for the concerns of the client.

The developing relationship creates a safe "thinking environment," and it is the relationship that helps with the onset of change. The coach must be conscious of staying outside the "system"—particularly not being drawn into the client's narrative or "story." In this way, the coach works with the client to assume responsibility for change. Nancy Kline refers to the coach keeping "attention simultaneously in three streams." In the first stream the coach focuses on the content of the client's narrative; in the second, the coach becomes aware of their own thoughts as a response to the client's narrative; in the third, his/her attention creates a thinking environment conducive for the client.2

2. Learning from Experience

You may be familiar with David Kolb's "Experiential Learning" model.3 Working with our own individual experience is a key to learning. In actively reflecting on experience, coach and client draw meaning from experience, literally entering "into a dialogue with...experience" turning it into useable knowledge.4

The coach's interventions help to build rapport between the client and the coach, with the client's experience being the foundation and source of learning for the coaching conversation. Experiential learning can be viewed as an active process in which the client works with his/her experience to understand meanings he/she has associated with it.

But learning does not occur in isolation from our social and cultural norms and values. While clients reconstruct their own experience, they do so within the context of their own unique social setting and cultural values. Other considerations are language, social class, gender, ethnic background and how clients have learned from an early age. In the context of the coaching conversation, when clients talk about their experiences, they create a story. There is power in both the language and the content of the story, and the significance comes from the interpretation and structure of that story.

If clients do not see themselves as learners or as learning from experience, or even see their stories as "reconstructions" and "re-interpretations" of their reality, how can we then use the coaching conversation to help clients learn, change and achieve their outcomes?

Exercise: Can you think of a time when you were (and were not) living life to the fullest? Describe what you were thinking, feeling, experiencing and assuming. What can you learn from reflecting on your experience?

3. Understanding the Role of Others

Coach and client need to be aware of the powerful role of others in the work they do together. A danger of not understanding the "system" in which the client operates is that the coach risks becoming a part of that system. Set up regular meetings with the client's line manager to align the client's values and goals with those of the organization. In terms of performance, it is critical that changes of thinking, feeling and behavior show up "visibly" in the workplace. Visible behavior is what people say and do—and what they fail to say or do.

If the client has grown in terms of self-awareness, the organization will want to see this "demonstrated" at work: in relationships, management competence, leadership behaviors and in the application of emotional competence (EQ). Regular meetings with the client's line manager give feedback that the coaching is on track. It may be useful for the coach to shadow the client, observing the client's interactions with others, honestly reflecting back observations. Often, change is embedded physiologically—clients demonstrate a visible change in attitude, in feeling and in how they "be who they are" as they interact with others.

Exercise: When recently have you seen a client "physiologically" demonstrate an insight or understanding into how his/her behavior impacted on performance, and what reflection did they have that indicated a willingness to change?

4. Developing EQ

Prior to Daniel Goleman and Candice Pert popularizing EQ, previous research in the realm of experiential learning explored putting the heart back into learning, emphasizing the "capacity to learn" at an emotional level. It is an area where executive coaches work, particularly in Western cultures where "emotion" is considered to be an inhibitor of clear, rational thinking.

Working to develop EQ helps the client to understand the importance of feelings in generating powerful thinking patterns and helps the client to understand the importance of emotional literacy in the workplace. Denial of emotions can lead to a denial of learning.5 Two influential sources of learning are past experience and the role of others, and different kinds of learning emerge depending on whether we view the learning as positive or negative. The way we interpret experience is connected to our view of ourselves and determines how we develop confidence and self-esteem.

Exercise: Jot down what's important to you about both your professional and your personal life. As you answer the question, look for the "intangibles," the "unmeasurables" such as: making a difference, collaboration, integrity, leadership, balance between work and personal life, family, friends, health.


Developing the relationship between coach and client, understanding the role of others in the system, building emotional competence and learning from experience are four major components of the coaching conversation that ultimately impact behavior and performance.

This article first appeared in Business Coaching Worldwide ( 2008, Volume 4, Issue 2). Copyright © 2011 WABC Coaches Inc. All rights reserved.


1 Stout Rostron, S. 2006. "Interventions in the Coaching Conversation: Thinking, Feeling and Behaviour." D.Sc. diss., Middlesex University London.

2 Kline, N. 2007. The Thinking Partnership Programme, Consultant's Guide. Wallingford, UK: Time to Think Ltd.

3 Kolb, D. 1984. Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

4 Boud, D., and N. Miller, eds. 1996 Working with Experience, Animating Learning. London: Routledge.

5 Kline, N. 2005. The Thinking Partnership Programme, Consultant's Guide. Wallingford, UK: Time to Think Ltd.

Dr. Sunny Stout Rostron is an executive director with Resolve Encounter Consulting and chair for the Research Agenda for the Global Coaching Convention. With 15 years experience as an executive coach, Sunny is President Emeritus for COMENSA (Coaches and Mentors of South Africa), the author of Accelerating Performance, Powerful New Techniques to Develop People (Kogan Page 2002) and contributing author to Sharing the Passion, Conversations with Coaches (AHT, 2006). Her new book about executive coaching is due in 2008. sunny@encounterconsulting.co.za. Learn more about Sunny in the WABC Coach Directory.

If you wish to reproduce this article in any material form, you must first contact WABC for permission.
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